A Voice for the Silent

A conversation with an Alabama activist

Written by Katherine Webb

Portrait by Beau Gustafson

When Sunnetta “Sunny” Slaughter says, “I’ve always been different,” you get the feeling she’s asking you to call her bluff. Raised in Trenton, New Jersey, the oldest of three girls in a working class family, and a product of an all-black Catholic school, Slaughter is now a maverick of sorts — an expert consult on criminal victimization.

Slaughter is a federally certified Law Enforcement Instructor and Consultant for the Department of Homeland Security/ Federal Law Enforcement Training Center. She holds multiple task force and FEMA certifications and is a recognized member of ILEETA (International Law Enforcement and Educators Association).

At 7 years old, Slaughter says, she was distinctly aware of societal injustices. She recalls her first encounter with public service, what began as a personal connection and protection of a loved one and resulted in a community project.

“When I was in early elementary school,” Slaughter says, “the Battle of Monument Park was dirty, lots of trash, lots of homeless people. My Aunt Peggy, who had some mental health issues, would be in the park. I would save some of my sandwich for her and ask my grandma if I could go see her.” Slaughter remembers defending those in the park from the jokes of her classmates.

“I told my mom I needed to call the mayor one day, because we need to clean up the park. Why? Because it’s dirty. She said okay and called his office. I left him a message that went, ‘Just give me a call, we need to clean up the park.’ He called me back [and asked,] ‘What day you want to go clean it up?’”

The city scheduled a park clean up day—at the request of young Slaughter.

“I’ve always been edgy, outspoken, take charge,” she says.

Her career began by chance when Slaughter’s parents could no longer afford private school. Trenton High was overcrowded and so the 16-year-old Slaughter enrolled in night classes for her senior year, studying alongside former dropouts and juvenile delinquents. Slaughter decided she needed a day job.

“I am the first and youngest African American to ever work for the Division of Gaming Enforcement for the Attorney General’s office for the state of New Jersey,” Slaughter says.

“I applied to work in the word processing pool, but there was a position open in the front office. A lady said, ‘They’ve never had a black girl in the main office, baby,’” Slaughter recall. “Like that would stop me.”

Eight weeks into night school, Slaughter completed all coursework to earn her diploma and began taking EMT courses at Princeton University. Before completing her EMT certificate, Slaughter “saved two small children and became one of the first eight (and youngest) to receive the Public Service Award from the Governor of New Jersey.” Slaughter was still 16.

She continued her day job at the Gaming Enforcement Office. “We oversaw the division of gaming enforcement, which included the Atlantic City Casinos. I worked for Anthony Perillo, the assistant attorney general,” Slaughter says. “That was my first encounter with human trafficking.”

The early encounter with trafficking would forever mark Slaughter.

“Human trafficking,” she explains, “is the second largest billion dollar criminal enterprise, only second to drugs and arms dealing… I didn’t know it as human trafficking then. I just remember the elements of criminal activity that I was privy to at such a young age, just because I was in that position, taking transcripts as we were investigating the criminal activities in various hotel ops and known offenders at the top of the scale. So that’s my intro.”

Slaughter’s fascination with human trafficking began then, as she maintained confidential files for her division. “Those were FBI files, investigative reports,” Slaughter says. “There were a lot of materials that came through that office involving crimes and murders. To learn more about it, I would read and cross reference and research. This is some of the most confidential of confidential materials.”

Slaughter remembers the time fondly, unafraid to dwell or reflect on the nostalgia, the way a baseball player might recall his first summer with a glove.

“I was excited,” Slaughter says. “I stayed excited. They were allowing me access and really kind of grooming me to an entire process of how to do things from an administrative standpoint—to how business runs and the government operates. It was fascinating. That laid a foundation for me.” This foundation would be a major component of Slaughter’s life years later in Birmingham.

Slaughter says matters involving ethics or morality have always piqued her interest and more often than not, compelled her to action. “I always wanted to be a lawyer specializing in medical malpractice. If something [was] wrong… It’s like that ‘-ism.’ If there’s an injustice, a problem—it’s just always been there with me,” Slaughter says, recalling when things clicked in the Gaming office. “Okay,” she thought, “I gotta fight this.”

This hard moral line, Slaughter says, “didn’t come from my parents. It came from God. I was always supposed to do this. If I wanted to be rich, if I wanted to be stable and normal, I would have never done this [work.] This is not glamorous. I don’t get money from anybody. But I can’t shake this.”

The “this” Slaughter refers to is somewhat difficult to describe. Her career began almost 30 years ago, but there is neither a definitive path nor pinpointing label to describe Slaughter’s life’s work.

After finishing EMT school, Slaughter married and moved around the nation—finding trafficking wherever she lived.

“In Virginia, I worked for the Navy Service Exchange Center in contracts and acquisitions. I became the first federal women’s program coordinator appointed by the captain and admiral… Trafficking was there.”

Slaughter recalls the sexual exploitation that occurred both on–and off–base, the result of sailors porting after extended stays at seas, and military wives and girlfriends “doing things to take care of bills” in their partner’s long absence.

“The one thing I can say about what I’ve learned is that trafficking looks different everywhere,” Slaughter says. “Then, I was not an activist. I was more of an advocate for things, passionate about folks.”

Slaughter believes if all members of a community felt this passion, human trafficking would wither.

“We see a thing and don’t recognize it for what it is. Human trafficking on the sexual exploitation side is a form of prostitution. We know about prostitution, but we don’t do anything about it. The police arrest people, but we as human beings are quick to say as a society, ‘Oh, they like to do those things. They brought that on themselves.’ That’s our answer. We don’t recognize it as our problem. We put blinders on.”

What does Slaughter expect of Birmingham residents?

“Look beneath the surface,” Slaughter says. “That is a hug tagline in human trafficking. You have to look beneath the surface of your own self—your morality and spirituality—before you pass judgment on someone else. If you think that any person wants to be sexually exploited, what does that say about you? Nobody wants to be harmed in that type of way.”

Slaughter explains that there are three types of human trafficking: sex trafficking, domestic minor sex trafficking, and labor trafficking.

“The push nationally,” she says, “is to address sex trafficking and ignore labor trafficking.”

Sex trafficking “is usually an adult, and society thinks, ‘Okay, that’s just prostitution.’ We seem to get less outraged by an adult prostituting. They may be victims. Their children may be held hostage. They may have no other means to make money.”

Domestic minor trafficking is “just was it says—children, which outrages everyone.”

Slaughter says that although society is appalled by the sexual exploitation of children, we are equally in the dark as to the goings-on of minor trafficking. Slaughter points to the trafficking of boys—something often ascribed to the international underworld—as a trafficking aspect that gets little local media attention. Also off mainstream media’s radar, according to Slaughter and many of her trafficking counterparts, is the sexual exploitation of black children.

Recalling the national media sensation over Shaniya Davis—the 5-year-old North Carolinian whose mother sold her for drug money to a man who raped and murdered the child—Slaughter asks, “Do you know how many Shaniya’s there are?”

Such tragedies are all too common, according to Slaughter.

Even more prevalent is labor trafficking, which, “looks just like slavery. There is not a distinct difference between what happened in our past as to what happens here and now. This is 2013, and there’s been no conversation about this at all. Now, people are not necessarily bound by chains that you can see.”

Slaughter suggests considering even the most seemingly simple of situations—a café waitress working 12 to 14 hour days five to six days a week without proper compensation or the masses of housekeepers or day laborers working under the table, so to speak. “The holidays,” Slaughter says, “are when exploitation is at its highest, but no one recognizes it even though we have laws protecting kids from working these kind of hours.”

So how does one avoid participating in the problem?

“I say you need to have this conversation with someone else. You know that saying ‘pay it forward?’ Well, conversation it forward,” Slaughter says.

“You have to keep having the conversation with enough people until you get enough people who say, ‘What can we do?’ We can come together across various communities and have real conversations about what’s happening and what can change in our communities.

“This is everybody’s problem. We have to recognize we all become the victims of collateral damage when we do nothing. Even if you don’t have the money, the time, or the energy, the next person you have a conversation with might.”

Slaughter says often the victims of trafficking are “hidden in plain sight.” She points to the missing children signs in entryways at Wal-Mart as an example. “They’re in a place where you think people would notice them more, because they’re at the front door, but you notice them least.” With enough community support, such victim notices might be posted regularly on news, on flashing billboards, everywhere.

“Most of the time, people don’t think of victims of anything until they become the victim of something,” Slaughter says, explaining this is simply human nature and that an individual’s underlying thought is often, “there’s not much I can do about it.”

Slaughter understands the need for personal connection. A victim of sexual abuse, Slaughter discovered she was married to a child molester when her four children were all under the age of 7. After putting her spouse in prison, she moved to Birmingham and soon began blazing trafficking trails.

Since 2006, Slaughter has worked with the workgroup task force with the attorney general’s office, working with the victim service coordinator. In 2010, she was part of a team that drafted the state law on trafficking, one of the most comprehensive laws in the country.

“In January,” Slaughter says, “I was appointed the chairwoman for the NAACP first human trafficking task force for Birmingham.”

Spending her days networking and making connections with other activists, Slaughter is now building relationships to begin a national coalition to focus on human trafficking—“people who don’t just talk but do”—like the Black and Missing Foundation in D.C. and Collective Advocates in New York.

Slaughter describes the vast and intricate systems that must be in place for a city to rescue and rehabilitate trafficking victims and prosecute trafficking criminals: medical facilities, counseling and legal services, safe housing, and sensitive law enforcement investigation methods.

Currently building a task force of experts in these necessary fields, Slaughter says, “Victims of trafficking really should be compassionately ‘handled’—if you want to say that—because judgment, stigma, shame [are all] immediate.”

Slaughter wrote a training manual that is used in the Southeast, explaining how law enforcement and victim service providers need to work well together. “Victim service providers want to take care of victims. Law enforcement have a job to do—to put criminals in jail.”

The problem in Birmingham is that these necessary services are not yet structured for trafficking victims. Tajuan McCarty operates the WellHouse, a nonprofit shelter for victims of trafficking. “She’s doing great work,” Slaughter says, “but that’s not enough.”

Recently, Slaughter says, trafficking awareness arrived on the global scale. “For the first time ever, a Pope—a man who is respected across religions and cultures—said something about victimization. All he said was that it’s the 21st century modern slavery. That’s so powerful. People are having conversations. The Pope recognizes this as a global problem. I’m encouraged by it.”

Slaughter says she would be all the more encouraged were local pastors and other community leaders more in tune with trafficking issues. “Alabama is situated where [many] interstates intersect. People are travelling up and down our highways all day long. Victims are everywhere.”

Everywhere, too, are the opportunities to open discussion on trafficking. For Slaughter, this conversation has become her life’s work.

In The Tipping Point, journalist Malcolm Gladwell describes “the connector” as an individual who galvanizes people, someone capable of calling others to action or linking those capable of action (those with resources like time and money) to those individuals with ideas. Slaughter is a master connector, bringing together passionate activists.

“People like me have to do what we have to do—stay up late, get out early and pray that we touch just one person,” Slaughter says. “I was born to do this. I don’t think I could do anything else other than what it is that I do, and what it is that I do, I don’t know, exactly. I’m a law enforcement instructor for the Feds, consultant, trainer, activist.

“I’m just a woman trying to save one life at the end of the day, and hopefully I might save my own.”

For more information, visit Sunny Slaughter’s Facebook page, The Crime Advocate Speaks

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